Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Why Are Protestants More Loyal to Their Toothpaste Than to Their Denomination? Section 2

Part 3 of series: Denominations, Toothpaste, and Toilet Paper
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Yesterday I began reflecting on the recent discover that Protestants in American are more loyal to their toothpaste than to their denomination. I suggested that, for many of us, we consider our “brand” to be Christian rather than “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” or whatever. But I believe there are other reasons why Protestants are happier to switch denominations than from Crest to Colgate.
Denominations are an Inconsistent Brand
Brands, it seems to me, get loyalty by consistency. I must confess that I frequent the McDonald’s brand of fast food. Partly it’s a matter of convenience. Partly it’s because McDonald’s places franchises in airport terminals. Partly it’s because almost all McDonald’s now have Wi-Fi Internet connections. And, partly it’s because McDonald’s is consistent.
In fact, McDonald’s is tediously consistent. You can almost always count on McDonald’s to be conveniently located and scrupulously clean. The menu, conspicuously located on the wall, is virtually identical to the menu in any other McDonald’s venue. This is true even if you travel overseas, with some notable exceptions. I remember once going to a McDonald’s in Switzerland and being surprised to find beer on the menu. And even throughout the U.S. you can sometimes discover regional differences among McDonald’s menus. But, for the most part, a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. Period. You can count on it. (Photo: A tray of European McDonald’s food, including beer.)
The same is true with toothpaste brands, by the way. Crest in Massachusetts is the same as Crest in California. Colgate in Texas is just like Colgate in Wisconsin. Trustworthy brand consistency.
But not when it comes to Protestant denominations. You can usually find a wide variety of church experiences within any single denomination. Take my denomination, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Just look at us. You can find Gothic or Georgian Presbyterian churches that are well over a hundred years old, and ultra-modern churches built within the last decade. They look nothing alike, and there’s no way you can be sure from a distance what sort of church you’re seeing. If, on the other hand, you catch a glimpse of the golden arches along the highway, you know you’re passing a McDonald’s restaurant. (Photo: You know exactly where I was having lunch. But you can’t be sure what brand of church was across the street. You get extra credit if you can tell me where this church is and identify it’s denomination. Clue: This is one of my favorite towns.)
And that’s just the outside. You’ll find just as much variation on the inside. Some Presbyterian churches worship in traditional sanctuaries with hardwood pews and large pipe organs. Other Presbyterian churches worship in worship centers or school auditoriums with folding chairs and rock bands. Many Presbyterian churches offer both extremes. And then there’s everything in between.
You might expect a fair amount of theological consistency within denominations. This may be true for some, but not in the PC(USA) and similar mainline denominations. Some of our churches are very conservative theologically, holding the Bible as the infallible or inerrant Word of God and salvation to be found only in Jesus Christ. Other PC(USA) churches accept the Bible as one, fallible authority among many, and believe that people can be saved in a wide variety of ways. I know Presbyterian pastors who believe that all people will be saved no matter whether they have a relationship with Christ or not. And I know Presbyterian pastors who think that one must have an explicit faith in Christ in order to be saved.
Let me offer one more salient example that features the “pet issue” of the PC(USA). A good friend of mine is a Presbyterian pastor who upholds biblical authority even when it’s unpopular. Thus he believes that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong and is willing to say so when needed. He doesn’t spend much time preaching about sex. But when he does, he speaks plainly in light of his convictions.
Several years ago my friend was preaching on a passage that dealt with marriage. During his sermon, he mentioned briefly that Scripture does not support sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman. At that moment, a couple stood up and left the church service, obviously intending to express their public disapproval of my friend’s point. The couple had been visiting, and, obviously, they never came back. Some time later my friend learned that the man who left was a Presbyterian pastor from another part of the country. Not only did he disagree with my friend, but he did so with enough passion to march out of the service.
This story illustrates one more way that the Presbyterian Church (USA), like most mainline denominations, is utterly diverse. If you visit a PC(USA) congregation next Sunday, you’ll have no way of knowing in advance what that church teaches about human sexuality.
So the Presbyterian “brand” is terribly inconsistent, even within one branch of American Presbyterianism. It gets more complicated when you remember that there are multiple Presbyterian denominations. This means that if you move from one place to another, you simply cannot predict whether the Presbyterian church in your new community will be anything like the one in your former community. In fact, the Methodist church in your new town may be much more like the Presbyterian church in your former town than the Presbyterian church in the new town.
The inconsistency of denominational brands has much to do with the lack of denominational loyalty among Protestants in America. You’d find the same with toothpaste if it varied as widely as churches. If Crest in California tasted like mint, while Crest in Texas tasted like bubblegum, you can be fairly sure that Crest lovers from one state would switch brands when they moved to the other state.

  • Thomas Buck

    I’d recognize that street anywhere! It’s Berne, Switzerland, right? :-)
    BTW, I buy Aim toothpaste most of the time because it’s the cheapest fluoride toothpaste I can find around here. It’s far less expensive than other brands. I wonder if it’s because they no longer spend any appreciable money on advertising?
    Good point you hit today, with the inconsistency within denominations. Very true.

  • Mariam

    Wow. Some story. Even I couldn’t guess that the person who walked out would end up being a PCUSA pastor! That says lots. It might be a nice thing to address later on: whether it is ever okay to publicly walk out of a service (short of Satan worship or something going on).

  • Quotidian Grace

    You make a compelling point, here. I never thought about the inconsistency of the “brand” as a factor in lack of denominational loyalty. But of course it is.

  • Evan

    This is a fine and succinct explanation as to why “brand loyalty” to a denomination is not going to be the dispositive factor. Loyalty to Jesus Christ, yes, because He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But who knows what a particular church may be like.
    As you have noted, there is often a disconnect between the majority of the national leadership of a denomination and the local churches in many denominations. Having read the “offical” position statements of some denominations, I will carefully work in some of the stances from it into a conversation with a local member of that denomination. Very, very often, that member will firmly contradict that their denomination takes such a position and assure me that they would leave if they ever did. Let me emphasize that this is not done in any sort of a confrontational way, but in a casual conversational way. “Oh, no,” the person will conclude. “I have been a (denominational member) for (umpteen) years. We would never hold such a belief. Trust me, as a (member), I would know!” I am pleased to report that their particular stances make them in each case a fine Christian, but a pretty lousy (denominational member):).
    So you never know until you go with a church. You won’t be served octopus or squid at a McDonald’s, but you might get served something you did not think was on the menu at another church, even one in your own denomination.

  • Bill Goff

    A “Mc Brew”. Wow! Why only in Switzerland? I might frequent McDonald’s more frequently if they served a good draft beer. And I belong to a Southern Baptist church!
    I’ve eaten at several McDonald’s restaurants in Russia including the hugh one in Moscow. Once a novelty, now in Moscow and St. Petersburg they are becoming nearly as ubiquitous as the places in the States. They are always extreemly clean, the food is nearly identical to that in America (although the ice cream is better) and all the workers smile. The big difference is that the Russian McDonald’s restaurants are usually packed with customers who appear to be mostly upper class folks. I’ve not seen beer on the menu in Russian McDonald’s restaurants.
    A long time ago when I lived in Jerusalem Israel, by wife and I visited the local Presbyterian church and discovered that it had a very stiff, high church Scottish service. Although we befriended the pastor and his wife, we ended up worshiping at the Narkis Avenue Church which was nominally Southern Baptist and worshiped on Saturday with translations of the service into Hebrew. We felt much more comfortable there. The Bible teaching was very informative and inspiring. The late Dr. Robert Lindsey, the pastor, let me teach a rather contriversial Bible study about women in the Bible and invited me to preach several times including the American Bicentennial Sunday in 1976.

  • RevK

    “I’m lovin’ it!”
    Of course there are some Presbyterian denominations that are more like McDonalds in their consistency. I’ve heard that the OPC is an OPC wherever you go (not counting Branch of Hope). I imagine the same for the RPCNA as well. My denomination, the ARP, has a wide expression of service “styles” but the consistent doctrinal subscription is certainly one of our hallmarks.

  • KimB

    Personally, I’m glad we don’t have cookie cutter denominations where each one adheres to strict guidelines and restrictions, like a toothpaste company. If we had that, where one believes this and one believes that with nothing in between, then there would be cracks that God might actually fall into, if you know what I mean. I mean, we are human and we don’t know it all, even if some denominations claim to. Why can’t we just get along and think bigger and just be the Church rather than a bunch of churches?

  • Ray

    The PC(USA) toothpaste is changing flavors and colors pretty rapidly these days. And the McPresbyterian hamburgers are starting to taste a little more like squid and octopus as time goes on. I’ve been a loyal customer for a long time, but Burger King is looking a little more interesting to me than it used to.
    Today our presbytery voted to add a little 08-B seasoning to the recipe. If enough other presbyteries concur, I just don’t think the hamburgers are going to taste the same.

  • Barbara Muse

    Having just discovered this website today, I am very much enjoying its content, and the voice of its author. And it is with much respect that I would like to contribute the following: Before the birth of our first child, my husband decided to convert from Lutheran to Roman Catholic (my faith) which came as quite a surprise to me. Since then, I never understood why he wasn’t interested in going to Mass at another parish; certainly, his Protestant/Lutheran roots must have been a large part of that. I hadn’t previously considered or understood how different parishes within his original faith could be. As a cradle Catholic, I am comfortable attending Mass at any parish, anywhere in the country, because I know there will be basically no surprises. No “perfection” or “superiority” is being implied here. There was only one perfect person (Christ)and it would be foolish, I believe, to think there is only one way to follow Him, faithfully.

  • Ray

    Barbara: Welcome, and thanks for your comment. Like you, I am a recent newcomer to this blog, and I have found it to be friendly, engaging, and instructive. The people here are great. But we’re mostly protestant, so we could use your input. Hope you stick around. There’s another guy, Tom, who sticks his head up once in a while. I enjoy reading his Catholic perspective on things.

  • J. Murphy

    It seems to me you’ve missed the more important side of the issue. Certainly denominations form an inconsistent brand. However, the bigger problem is the individual. How does one choose a church? What is most important in deciding which church to attend? Unfortunately, many, perhaps most, people choose their church like they choose their toothpaste. They like the look, smell, taste, feel, or packaging. They totally miss the reason for using the toothpaste in the first place–does it serve the intended purpose? If people would look for churches committed to fundamental biblical principles rather than because they like the way it’s packaged, they would have a much deeper connection to that church and denomination, that is more brand loyalty.

  • Tricia

    I wanted to thank you for these articles. My husband & I grew up in different denominations and are looking for a new church home for our family. I was feeling a lot of guilt about the possibility of leaving the PCUSA since I’ve always identified myself as Presbyterian. Reading your articles has helped me to realize where my focus should be. Thank you.

  • james gold

    Great site! I’ve enjoyed the opinions. I was raised Presbyterian in Virginia and it brings back memories. For me the innumerable (and growing) versions of Protestantism were always a sign of doctrinal confusion. I agreed we were all in ‘protest” against” Roman abuses historically but then read that before 1054 there was ONE Church that the pope split away from, the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church. In that church the pope has always been called the first Protestant because he was the first to make a split in the Body of Christ and then innumerable splits followed five hundred years later because of “the first Protestant’s” excesses (infallibility, filioque, indulgences). I’m nervous at the idea that people would attend church because of the pastor or the quality of the sermon because these things change. I can go to any Eastern Orthodox church, e.g. Greek, Russian, Syrian, Bugarian, etc, and still get the exact same doctrine and an unchanging Divine Liturgy wherein I will encounter my risen Lord. The personality of the priest or the quality of his sermons are very much secondary to my spiritual life.
    Just my two cents…

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